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Published: February 23, 2015

Hostage taking: new tool for media impact

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Dimitris Sotirchos works as a Media Researcher. Previously he worked as a trainee in the Security and Defence Subcommittee of the European Parliament. He is a graduate of International relations from Warwick University and of EU Governance from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Kidnapping and the consequent use of hostages is hardly a new method for terrorist organisations to express their defiance towards enemy states, or even hostile home states. What differentiates current hostage situations from those of the past is the way in which they have been adapted to today’s information society. It seems that terrorist groups have found a new use for hostages: propaganda.

So far, governments’ hostage liberating strategies have been based on how effective they believe ransom payment to be as a strategy. It seems, however, that this particular debate falls short of current realities and therefore strategies remain ill-equipped to address the matter.

Ransom payment: the vicious circle

Historically, governments have been unable to agree upon a specific reaction to hostage-taking situations. Some governments seem to be following a pattern of succumbing and paying the required ransom. France purportedly sent its own Defence Minister to negotiate a deal for the liberation of hostages in Syria. Italy reportedly followed a similar path in order to liberate two aid workers. Spain is also considered to be willing to provide ransoms to free hostages, while the government officially denies it.

In the case of the UK, the US and other governments in alliance with them, there is a strong outspoken policy of non-ransom payment. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been particularly vocal about this. In the last NATO summit he openly criticised other Western governments for giving in to terrorist demands by paying ransoms to free hostages. There are compelling arguments for this position, as giving in to kidnappers’ demands can be perceived as supporting a vicious cycle. The main argument by states that refuse to negotiate ransoms for the freedom of hostages is based on the assumption that, in the long-term, this strategy will save lives, since citizens from those countries naturally become unattractive targets.

Investigations by the New York Times on the impact of ransom money reveal that France alone has paid an amount equivalent to 58 million dollars since 2008 to Al Qaeda affiliates. This may not only encourage such groups to continue these practices but also help finance their operations and weaponry. Some groups like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb region select hostages according to which nationalities are the most probable to attract a ransom payment.

Violent footage: a new tool for communication purposes?

In his speech at Chatham House in 2012, the US Under Secretary David Cohen claimed that there was empirical evidence that a strategy of refusal to pay ransom remains the best way to break this vicious circle. This strategy is questioned from the recent use some groups are making of hostages in order to create their own narrative and propagate it through shocking imagery. The use of media and the internet by ISIS and Boko Haram has reached levels never seen before from such groups. Either through TV channels, social media or even magazines such as Dabiq (published by ISIS available in many different languages), the use of media has become a defining element of their strategy.

Last year, Boko Haram achieved a ‘media stunt’ in Nigeria with the massive abduction of Christian schoolgirls, which it then paraded in Islamic attire in a video that shocked the world. Boko Haram is very active in social media. Likewise ISIS’ videos play an important part in the group’s own identity construction. Since this is a very loose organisation in terms of ideology or aims, in order to keep its ranks tight there needs to be a reference, or a recognisable ‘brand’ name. Therefore, the use of violent videos shared in the media in order to create an image is crucial for ISIS to remain relevant.

The need to change battlefield

Governments and media alike are looking for new strategies to counter the use of hostages for propaganda. The French government has made a start to this by creating an anti-jihadi platform using shocking images with the goal to deter potential new fighters. It can be argued that the war is also being fought on the media and information level and public response will play an important role. The new security strategy revealed by the US president seems to grasp the idea that there it might be useful to give more importance to a less traditional battlefield. The focus from governments seems to be shifting to how to counter the power of these images and their use as a recruitment tool. Regardless of a government’s choice to negotiate a ransom, these groups have found an alternative use for hostages, and governments ought to accept this change, re-evaluate their strategies and adjust their handling of hostage situations accordingly.

The argument here is that regardless of a government’s choice to negotiate ransoms, these groups have found an alternative use for hostages, and governments ought to accept this change, re-evaluate their strategies and adjust their handling of hostage situations accordingly.



David Cameron scolds Nato leaders over Islamic State ransom payments, The Guardian, 4 September 2014

These are the countries that have (probably) paid hostage ransom to the Islamic State, The Global Post, 21 January 2015

The price of freedom: Did Italy pay a €12m ransom for the release of aid workers in Syria?, The Independent, 16 January 2015

Syrie: Paris aurait versé 18 millions de dollars pour les otages, L’Express, 26 April 2014

Liberado el periodista Marc Marginedas tras seis meses de secuestro en Siria, El Pais, 2 March 2014

Remarks of Under Secretary David Cohen at Chatham House on ‘Kidnapping for Ransom: The Growing Terrorist Financing Challenge’, US Department of Treasury, 10 May 2012

Countering Boko Haram, Alert Issue 49, November 2014, EUISS, Cristina Barrios

Stop djihadisme: Contre le djihadisme tous vigilants et tous acteurs, Gouvernement Français, 28 January 2015

Fox News posts graphic Islamic State video, USA Today, 4 February 2015

Obama lays out security strategy, warns against ‘overreach’, Reuters, 6 February 2015

Background reading

Why would anyone be party to Isis’ sick and sadistic videos? The Guardian, Catherine Benett

If terror is political theatre, ISIL is an Oscar winner, Al Jazeera, 7 February 2015

The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, Annual Report, Home Department, March 2013


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